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The Real Topgun

Michael Hanson

Far from the hype of Hollywood, elite pilots take to the skies in Fallon to train the next generation of combat aviators

It’s a typical June day in Fallon, where the sky hangs sapphire blue and the truck tires whine along Route 95. A lush little oasis in the middle of the high desert, Fallon is known as Nevada’s salad bowl. The air here is moist with the scent of alfalfa and cow shit, and like other farm towns of fewer than 10,000 people, it’s the kind of place where the beef tastes better because you know the ranchers who raised it, the same way you know the people pumping your gas or pouring your morning coffee. Summer days seem longer in Fallon, where the corn grows knee-high by the Fourth of July and weekends are spent watching rodeos over rounds of light beer at the Churchill County Fairgrounds, which also hosts the Cantaloupe Festival and County Fair each August.

And yet, if a “highway to the danger zone” exists in real life, it’s the 95 into Fallon. People in town go about their daily errands: picking up feed, chasing down tractor parts, heading to Safeway for groceries. No one seems to notice the rumble over the rooftops, even when it turns into a roar. They load fertilizer into flatbeds or chat outside the post office, never so much as pausing as the sky tears open above them. The out-of-towners are easy to spot because they are the ones looking up, but for locals, it’s just another day at “the base,” which is what they call the Naval Air Station Fallon, home to the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School — aka Topgun. Known as the PhD program of naval fighter combat, the school was moved from its original home at Miramar in San Diego in 1996 and brought to Fallon, where it eventually became part of the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center. Fightertown USA was replaced by Small Town USA, and with the latest Top Gun movie only adding to years of misconceptions and mythmaking, one thing remains clear: The real Topgun is a long way from the beaches of San Diego. A long way from Hollywood, for that matter.

Nineteen thousand feet up, it’s another day at the office for Lieutenant Graham “Bones” Stapleton (right) and his new Topgun students. Up here, Fallon is nothing but a little green blip in a sea of brown and beige. At 32 years old, Stapleton has been a Topgun instructor for three years, and he’s just received a fresh crop of “studs,” which is what they call their pupils. Today’s exercise is a 9K perch, which is the first flight in the basic fighter maneuvering, or dogfighting, phase of the syllabus. It’s the first “hop” that students execute with a Topgun instructor, and they are usually very nervous. The setup is fairly simple, as far as one-on-one fighter combat goes, with the student’s jet in an offensive position about a mile and a half behind the instructor. On paper, the student’s goal is to “stay offensive,” or to stay behind the instructor. Stapleton’s goal is to neutralize the student, which typically happens when seasoned instructors square off with new pupils. Stapleton remembers what it was like for his first air-to-air hop as a student, the near-crippling nerves that curdled in the bottom of his stomach, and after three years of instructing, he always bears that in mind.

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For today’s exercise, both instructor and student are flying identical F/A-18 E Super Hornets. They are flying “slick,” which means all external stores have been stripped off their aircraft: no centerline tanks, no ordnance pylons. It’s an unusual configuration for fleet aviators, but they do this to force students to fly timely mechanics. Errors are more pronounced, which makes them easier to learn from.

“Viper One, speed and angles left,” Stapleton says into his mic, beginning a communication cadence to initiate the “set,” which is Navy talk for drill.

“Viper Two, speed and angles right,” his student says.

“Check tapes H.U.D.” This is to ensure the aircraft’s recording system is on, which will give valuable information for the debrief later.

“Tapes,” the student says.

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“Check left 50,” Stapleton says, signaling his student to place their jet 40 degrees off his tail, giving them the offensive position.

“Reverse,” the student says, letting Stapleton know they are in position. From here, the student counts down the beginning of the set. “Viper Two in from 2.0…1.9…1.8…” When the student closes the distance to 1.5 miles, or 9,000 feet, they begin the drill with one last communication. “Fox Two,” they say — signaling that the fight is on.

With the student immediately on his tail, Stapleton begins a defensive maneuver by executing a break turn to the right, pulling as hard as he can on the stick. Right away he can tell he has caught his student “behind the jet,” meaning that the student is not keeping up with the changing relationships between the two aircraft. Dogfighting is all about energy management, and with the F/A-18s flying slick, the angles are tighter than the student is used to, causing them to underestimate their airspeed and begin their turning pull early. Within seconds, the student is pointing at Stapleton instead of flying wide around his wing line, causing them to collapse the range and pass directly behind Stapleton’s aircraft with too much energy, essentially forfeiting the tactical advantage.

Having seen this a dozen times before, Stapleton instinctively unloads his aircraft out of its turn, resets the stick, and reverses. All of a sudden, instead of the student being squarely behind and forcing Stapleton into an evasive dive, the two are locked in a side-by-side arc, swirling slowly downward. At this point, Stapleton cues his helmet to deploy a simulated AIM-9X sidewinder missile at his student’s aircraft, all the while gauging whether they know what to do or if they are “lost in the sauce,” and as the jets approach the hard deck of 9,000 feet, Stapleton makes a final aggressive maneuver, gaining a last-second advantage.

For Stapleton, it doesn’t get better than this. He knows the student has made a fatal error, and in an instant, he will send a burst of simulated cannon fire straight through their cockpit. Unlike the movies, however, Stapleton doesn’t showboat. Sure, a healthy amount of confidence is essential for a job like this, but he never seeks to embarrass, and for most students, this is a one-time error that soon gets corrected. But still, killers will be killers.

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In fact, Stapleton doesn’t just relish the kill; he “cherishes it.” The kill is what he lives for. It’s a deep, carnal satisfaction all good fighter pilots thirst for. The mission of Topgun is “to win in combat,” and achieving victory requires split-second decisions — how quickly can you spot a deviation? How quickly can you capitalize on an opponent’s mistake when you’re going 400 knots, when you’re “under G,” the increased gravity draining blood from your head and specifically from your eyes, causing you to see stars, a blackness forming at the bottom of your sightline and, like a bathtub filling up with water, slowly rising until you lose vision or pass out completely?

How quickly? This entire exercise takes about 90 seconds, in which both aircraft have descended 10,000 feet. They complete the set a few more times before heading back to base, always executing their landings as if plopping down onto a carrier.

On the ground, Stapleton peels off his helmet and visor, revealing his long face and brown hair which, with years of stress, is going gray above the ears. After completing his shutdown procedures, he steps onto the flight line and walks toward Hangar 5 (shown here), a gearhead’s dream of fighter jets with panels pulled off, tool chests wheeled here and there, mechanics using highly customized tools to replace highly customized parts. Like cars, jets have scheduled and unscheduled maintenance, and the goal for the flight crew is to never have a breakdown in the air. Even though pilots tend to get all the attention, it takes hundreds of man-hours from hundreds of people to make this operation possible, from the mechanics to the operations managers to the oxygen equipment technicians.

After giving one of the mechanics a customary nod, Stapleton strides into the flight equipment shop, which is essentially a locker room where the pilots keep all their gear. He hangs his helmet on a peg on the wall, along with his G-suit, harness, and survival vest. He then walks to the Fleet Training Building, stepping through an airlock into fresh air-conditioning, which feels cool on his skin after being out in the Fallon sun.

Stapleton remembers the first time he walked through these doors as a student. He’d heard all the stories, all the legend and lore. He knew that the Navy only sends 36 fighter crews to Topgun each year, so when he was first accepted as a student, his highest priority was not screwing it up. He also had a lot to live up to. Originally from the northwest suburbs of Chicago, he grew up listening to jets take off at O’Hare International Airport, living the life of a conventional White Sox-worshiping Midwesterner.

But it seemed he was always destined to become a pilot. His father was a naval aviator, having flown helicopters off the USS Enterprise in the ’80s before retiring as a commander in the reserves. His grandfather on his mom’s side was a first-generation American from Hungary who flew float planes as a 20-year-old in the Pacific Theater of World War II. His other grandfather was a radio operator on a B-17 in Korea, and Stapleton will never forget sitting at the foot of his chair listening to the story about the time his grandfather was flying over enemy territory with a busted-up engine, flames wrapping around the wing and fuselage. The crew had opened the bomb bay doors and were staring out into the darkness, wondering whether they would have to bail out over hostile territory. Luckily, they made it back to a friendly airfield, but the story always stuck with young Stapleton, which is part of the reason he decided to join the Navy.

After flashing his badge at the security desk, he hangs a left past a 25-millimeter MiG-29 cannon mounted on a wooden frame, the words “Check your guns at the door” inscribed below. The Fleet Training Building is full of jokes like this. There’s a wooden replica of an F/A-18 cockpit with the master arms switch stuck on Arm. The commanding officer has a flag on his office wall that reads “Go Navy: Beat China.” There are also some more serious pieces of military memorabilia — vintage pistols, mounted rapiers. There’s a poster of Vince Lombardi with a quote about what it means to be number one, and in the hallway hangs a photo of every class to have graduated since 1969. Every now and then there’ll be a comical movie reference, a gag photo of Tom Cruise or Val Kilmer hung in a place it obviously shouldn’t be, but for the most part, Topgun students and staff try to distance themselves from the films as much as possible. Anytime someone says they have the “need for speed” or that the “plaque for the alternates is down in the ladies’ room,” they are issued a fine for quoting the original movie. And though there is some customary office banter, it’s all business when class is in session.

On a typical day, students wake up around 3 a.m. for a 5 a.m. mass briefing, where they give instructors the day’s activities. This role reversal is essential for the way Topgun functions, which isn’t necessarily to develop elite fighting units, but elite flight instructors. Throughout the 13-week program, students will become proficient in air-to-air, air-to-surface, and maritime strike mission sets. They will learn how to fly them; they will learn how to teach them. This includes daily briefs, in-flight training, three- to five-hour debriefs, and extended simulator time. About halfway through the course, they do what’s called the “MiG Killer” event, where students take off solo and arrive somewhere on the range at a specific time and place with no idea who or what they are about to fight. It could be an F/A-18 E, an A-10 Thunderbolt II, or even an F-22 Raptor. This teaches them to account for anything, and after that exercise, the staff brings in a veteran who has seen actual combat and downed an enemy aircraft. They used to be WWII or Korean War aces, but since there aren’t many of them left, it could be a Vietnam War vet, or someone who has seen modern combat.

On the last day of training, students do a grad strike event, where they all square off against all the instructors at once, with the students trying to strike a target and the instructors trying to defend it. It’s a chance for them to harness everything they’ve learned and put it into practice — a student vs. instructor buzzsaw that acts as the climax to the course. If students meet “the bar,” or the standard and attitude expected of Topgun graduates, they can invite their family and loved ones to Ault Auditorium in the Topgun Fleet Training Building, where they shake the Admiral’s hand and take a class photo. The staff also does a private ceremony where each student receives their Topgun patch, after which they will always be known as “patch wearers,” a symbol of their time in the program.

The most common misconception is that they’ve reached the top of the pyramid, that they’ve finally arrived, but in truth, Topgun is just a stop along the way.

From here, most of them will head out to various weapons schools to train the fleet. Some, like Stapleton, will be asked to join the staff at Topgun, and the fact that he’s been through it makes him perfect for the job.

As he heads to debrief the day’s exercise, Stapleton remembers what it was like the first time he did a 9K perch set as an attacker. Like his student today, he also pulled early and got reversed on by the instructor, ending up defensive. He remembers thinking he would never make it through the 13 weeks having failed so miserably on Day One. But, as with most pursuits, failure is the only way to learn, and Topgun is the ultimate pressure cooker. No one goes easy on themselves here. Everyone is on point all the time, whether flying or studying or eventually teaching. Instructors work upward of 15 hours a day when class is in session and are routinely told not to come in on Christmas, which most of them attempt to do anyway. From the staff to the students to the flight crews, these aviators are truly “not in the business of good enough,” and as Stapleton heads to the debrief, he is thinking about the best way to relate this to his students when he passes his commanding officer in the hall. “Hey Bones,” his CO says. “Remember you have an interview later today. That reporter is coming up from Vegas.”

“Can’t wait,” Stapleton jokes, letting out a noticeable sigh. It’s funny because in Fallon, where most people have a relative or friend who works on base, where most people have seen an F/A-18 so many times that they don’t even look up when they come screaming overhead, there’s nothing overly sexy about Topgun. It’s not like the movies. There’s no cocktailing on the flight deck, no measuring each other’s missiles. In fact, the mission is far more sobering. The truth is, they’re flying the most advanced war machines ever created, and if the day ever comes, they will be asked to take lives, something each pilot must reckon with privately. There are no simulated threats in combat. The weapons are real, and so are the people flying the aircraft. Some of them might suffer lifelong emotional and psychological trauma, which can happen in training as well as combat. Some of them might head out for a mission one day and not come home. Despite Fallon being a cowboy town, at the real Topgun there are certainly no cowboy antics.

But how do you explain that to a reporter? How do you explain that you don’t crave the limelight; that in fact, you don’t appreciate you and your colleagues being portrayed as a bunch of macho fighter bros junked up on adrenaline who like to stand tall for the cameras and wax poetic about how lonely it is at the top of the heap? Maybe past generations were like that, the people Ehud Yonay wrote about in his original “Top Guns” for California magazine in 1983, the article on which the original film was based. That was a different time, a time before the internet, before anyone could be the main character of their own personal movie. When YouTube or Instagram can place anyone inside the cockpit of a fighter jet, how do you explain what it really feels like to strap into a machine with more than eight tons of thrust and blast off, hair on fire, the earth and everyone on it becoming just a blur?

And how could you honestly explain, without coming off the wrong way, that you wish no one even knew about Topgun or Fallon or any of it; that if you could have your way, you wouldn’t have to talk to reporters or do television interviews; you wouldn’t have to answer the same stupid questions every time you sat at a bar: Have you ever done a flyby? Do you really play volleyball in jeans? In a perfect world, you wouldn’t be symbolized as a counterpunch to waning American masculinity, as a prototypical alpha male with a do-or-die attitude, as the sole sovereign to the Kingdom of Winning. In a perfect world, you wouldn’t have to do any of that stuff. You could just fly fighter jets and teach others how to fly them, and no one would even know about it.

But that’s not the world Lieutenant Graham Stapleton lives in. As flawed as the Hollywood rendition of his profession is, it’s part of the culture now, and despite how cartoonish it makes him look, it works wonders for recruitment. The Navy needs a face, after all, and today, that face is him.

“Another reporter?” he says to his CO, running his hand through his hair. “Those people never get it right.” Φ

Photos by Michael Hanson